Cambodia Domestic Issues

Cambodia refugees

Dealing with refugees and asylum seekers

Along with the Philippines and East Timor, Cambodia is only one of three countries in Southeast Asia that has ratified the Convention on the Status of Refugees. The kingdom, which was itself the home country of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the course of the civil war and genocide in the 1970’s, however, sometimes finds it difficult to adhere to its self-imposed obligations and has therefore made the headlines more frequently in recent years. In 2009 20 Uighur refugees were deported back to China; this decision is said to be closely related to a billion dollar aid package that the government in Beijing Cambodia only two days later had granted. It is not unlikely that most of the deported refugees – denounced as separatists by the communist regime – were subsequently sentenced to long prison terms. Last but not least, this incident is said to be the decisive factor in the fact that the number of asylum seekers in Cambodia fell from 250 in 2008 to just two four years later.

The Montagnards from Vietnam, the most common group of people who flee to Cambodia, are an exception. The term refers to several mountain peoples of predominantly Christian faith who stood on the side of the United States during the Second Indochina War. Today they are often prevented from practicing their religion, which is reason enough for some of them to flee to Cambodia via the northeastern province of Ratankiri. There is great effort there to send these “illegal immigrants” back to their homeland, also out of the interests of Vietnam’s close ally.

According to, Cambodia received particular attention in 2014 for a deal with Australia in which the kingdom undertook to take in refugees who actually wanted to go down under for around 40 million US dollars. By the time it expired in November 2018, however, this agreement only affected four of up to 600 eligible people who were relocated from Nauru to Cambodia. How absurd the whole agreement really was is also shown by the fact that Cambodians are fleeing to Australia, most recently in February 2018 Bou Rachana, the widow of the murdered regime critic Kem Ley, with her five sons as the most prominent example.

Cambodia refugees

Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The question of coming to terms with the past is one of the most important issues in both Cambodia’s domestic policy and the state’s international relations. On October 4, 2004, the Cambodian National Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a tribunal before which the leadership of the Khmer Rouge should answer. The tyranny of the Khmer Rouge lasted just under four years, but the number of victims is alarming: 1.7 million people lost their lives in the most brutal way, and according to other sources the figure was even two million. After the invasion of the Vietnamese army in January 1979, the Khmer Rouge continued to fight as guerrilla warriors from the Thai border area in the west and north-west until 1998. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal (officially Extraordinary Chambers at the Courts of Cambodia) is supposed to investigate the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 and to try the top officials responsible.

After long delays, the court started its work in July 2007. However, the first trial did not begin until February 2009 – against Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his fighting name Duch, director of the torture prison S-21. In July 2010 he was sentenced to 35 years in prison, which was increased to life imprisonment on appeal in February 2012. He was charged with murder and torture in at least 14,000 cases. Duch died on September 2, 2020 in a hospital in Phnom Penh, where he was taken from his prison cell after falling ill.

On November 21, 2011, the long-awaited main trial 002 against the most senior representatives of the Khmer Rouge began. Of the initially four accused, only the chief ideologist Nuon Chea (“brother number two”, head of government and deputy to Pol Pot, who died in 1998) and the former head of state Khieu Samphan are currently in the dock. The former Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith was finally declared incapable of litigation due to her dementia and released from custody in September 2012; she died in August 2015 at the age of 83. Her husband, Ieng Sary, also accused, the then foreign minister and “brother number three”, died of natural causes in March 2013 at the age of 87 after spending five years in custody like the other accused.

Originally, the jointly accused quartet were accused of genocide (only against the Cham and Vietnamese ethnic minorities), crimes against humanity, serious violations of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and violations of Cambodian criminal law of 1956. On August 7, 2014, 35 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment in the first instance in the first part of the main trial, in which the crimes between April 1975 and December 1977 were investigated. The sentence was on appeal process, which ended in 2016, confirmed. The judgment in the second part (002/02) was passed on November 16, 2018: Nuon Chea (then 92) and Khieu Samphan (87) were found guilty again. Nuon Chea died on August 4, 2019, which is why the appeal before the Appeals Chamber is being conducted exclusively for the former head of state, the only remaining defendant.

The complex work of the court is regularly hampered by allegations of corruption, political influence and conflicts over litigation. The first judgment against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan on August 7, 2014 was also heavily criticized by international experts with regard to its legal quality. Most explosive, however, is the dispute as to whether the investigation may be extended beyond the already imprisoned leadership cadre (the statute of the court leaves room for further charges, but Prime Minister Hun Sen rejects further trials – in the interests of “Cambodia’s internal security”).

Although charges were brought against Meas Muth, the then naval commander (case 003), and against Ao An (“Ta An”) and Yim Tith (“Ta Tith”) for the 004 trial in 2015, the arrest warrants are from the Cambodian Security agencies have not yet been enforced. All three accused ex-cadres were on the second to third levels of the internal hierarchy of the regime; they are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, among other things. Since the publicly visible activities have been significantly reduced since 2017 and further proceedings are therefore unlikely, some observers are already taking stock with light and shadow. After all, there are still budgets for 2020 and 2021(between 2006 and 2017 the tribunal already devoured $ 319 million), which means that the work there is not finally over.